The Amazing Diversity of Pigeons

Studying pigeon genetics could offer insight into how various traits have evolved in wild birds. 

Free-living pigeons are so ubiquitous they often go unnoticed, yet the species is remarkably diverse. The 350-plus breeds display traits ranging from curly feathers to stumpy beaks. But similar-looking pigeons aren’t necessarily closely related, reveals a study of 70 domestic breeds and two free-living populations. For instance, both English trumpeters and English pouters have feathers, not scales, on their feet, but they aren’t genetically similar. Conversely, two owl pigeons, the short-beaked African and the Old German, are closely related (though the former has a plain head while the latter sports an impressive crest). Investigating the genetic origins of pigeon diversity could help shed light on how similar traits—vital for survival and reproduction—have evolved in wild birds. “It would be great to cross a toucan and an owl to try to figure out what controls beak development,” says Michael Shapiro, a University of Utah biologist and lead author of the study. “Obviously you can’t do that, but you can cross domestic pigeons."